Coro’s Blog: On Purpose

Prescription for a Healthy Business

Published on June 12, 2015

Faced with rising income inequality, high unemployment levels, an aging population and sky-rocketing obesity levels, leading companies are adopting business strategies to improve public health outcomes. In research I conducted for Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR) on the qualities of transformational companies, these trail blazers are “solutions oriented” and “inclusive”, and seek to address systemic social issues through their core business.

Equally, the social / non-profit / community sector is becoming more strategic in its approach to business engagement to help achieve their mandates and serve constituents. The social sector is going beyond the typical charitable handout and is instead, looking to partner with business on systemic issues, whether child poverty, youth unemployment or public health.

One organization thinking this way is the Public Health Association of BC (PHABC). I recently had the privilege of addressing the PHABC’s annual conference. I spoke about my work creating CSR as a Poverty Reduction Strategy and publishing the Business Guide to Social Value Creation. I shared how companies are pivoting their corporate social responsibility (CSR) to contribute substantively to improving public health by creating a “healthy business” model.

Here are some of the companies I profiled that are advancing public health through their core business:

Unilever: Solutions oriented

A few years ago Unilever repurposed itself to “make sustainable living commonplace”. It adopted a bold, long-term 2020 target to help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being. Within this overarching aim, Unilever is:

  • setting targets to increase their portfolio of products that meet the highest nutritional standards based on globally-recognized dietary guidelines;
  • changing the hygiene habits of consumers across Asia, Africa and Latin America by promoting the benefits of hand-washing with soap. By the end of 2015, their Lifebuoy soap brand aims to alter the hygiene behaviour of one billion consumers, having already reached over 69 million people in 2013;
  • tackling global youth unemployment by working on initiatives to train and enable young people to participate in the agricultural sector and in their brands’ distribution channels.

All of Unilever’s leading brands are creating their ‘sustainable living” ambition; so far 11 of 14 of their top brands have done so.

CVS: Social purpose

CVS, the second largest pharmacy chain in the US with nearly 8,000 drug stores, adopted a new corporate purpose – “helping people on the path to better health” – and changed its corporate name to “CVS Health” to reflect its broader commitment and desire to improve the health of Americans.

Last September the company stopped selling cigarette and tobacco products, sacrificing $2 billion in sales, and launched a comprehensive national smoking cessation program. Its new CSR strategy is pursuing goals to increase access and affordability of health care, reduce prescription drug abuse and reduce its carbon footprint. Its charitable program supports organizations that are providing greater access to health care, wellness and prevention programs – especially for underserved populations.

MEC and Danone

The number of companies promoting social sustainability by pursuing public health strategies is encouraging. Mountain Equipment Co-op’s (MEC) social purpose includes inspiring and enabling Canadians to lead active outdoor lives, and they are developing measures to help people overcome barriers to active lifestyles.

Danone, the yogurt company, divested itself of its beer and biscuit businesses because they were not consistent with its new focus as a health company. Like Unilever, they are improving the nutritional content of their products, starting by lowering the sugar content of all of their children’s yogurts. Danone has set ambitious targets for its yogurts to be low fat or fat free and to improve the nutrient density of its overall product portfolio. Both Danone and Unilever have been researching ways to help their customers adopt healthy eating habits.

As these examples reveal, CSR extends well beyond its usual scope of social and environmental footprint reduction. Some companies are connecting their mandates explicitly to health, in order to address global mega-forces such as malnutrition, disease, rising unemployment, growing poverty, aging and obesity.

As more and more companies pursue, deliver on and take accountability for health outcomes, we can expect more collaboration between the corporate and public health sector. That would be a welcome development, as public health professionals have skills and knowledge that companies can harness. Particularly, they specialize in understanding systems and system change and have considerable competency in multi-stakeholder collaboration – two skills sorely needed by business if they are to succeed in improving health impacts. (See this report for more on the top five sustainability skills needed by business leaders). On the other hand, for collaborations to succeed public health critics will need to stop polarizing the debate and find common ground with business.

These leading companies are showing the way. Let’s imagine the healthy business of the future and support path-finding companies to mobilize the rest to play their part.

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